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How Brunel University London has adapted and thrived during the pandemic

By Niamh O

Updated May 27, 2021 Updated May 27, 2021

Hybrid learning, greater use of the campus, and new and exciting programmes can all be expected at Brunel University London in the near future.

London is one of the world’s most vibrant cities. One of its major selling points to prospective students is the eclectic nature of the city, with graduate roles in every industry from finance to fashion – and let’s not forget how a global outlook is at the heart of the city’s spirit. 

For these reasons (and many more) students from across the globe have flocked to London to pursue higher education.

But this was all before the COVID-19 pandemic. Can the city still offer students everything it used to, especially as some teaching has moved online?   

TopUniversities caught up with faculty at Brunel University London to find out what students can expect from studying in London now.

Adapting during a pandemic 

Dr Mary Richards is the Programme Director BASc Global Challenges at Brunel University London and she says her department spent lots of time thinking and discussing how they would translate their teaching approach to the new, unexpected circumstances.

She said: “In the first term we opted to deliver live to small numbers of socially-distanced students in-person in our dedicated classroom space as well as provide the same session to students joining us online.”

For the most part, Richards says they did not pre-record because quite a lot of the programme is a 'flipped classroom' - in other words students are expected to prepare through reading or viewing materials and then critically engage with ideas drawn from those materials in classes.

She said: “Three of the team delivered in this way and another three delivered entirely remotely - one new staff member was stuck in Canada so there was no way they were going to be delivering anything in person.”

By the second term however, everything had moved online which Richards says was very difficult for staff and students, and students’ mental health suffered even more than it had during term one.

Richards said: “We ran additional online sessions aimed at acknowledging issues and strategies for coping. I even shared a photo every week with my year two students of my rather lame attempts to grow plants in response to a student's suggestion that growing things was one way of feeling positive about the future.” 

Rising to the challenge 

Professor Hua Dong (PhD, Fellow of DRS), Head of Brunel Design School, believes the school was born during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said: “We had to change the delivery method of our teaching: moving all lectures online. Innovative methods have been adopted by some lecturers, e.g., flipped class and mico brainstorming.”

Dong says, luckily, the design workshops were open when rules allowed, and first-year design students are undertaking socially-distanced workshop training on campus.

She said: “We have built a new 3D printing hub which can be self-serviced; a Brunel Design student helped develop an app for ordering and tracking 3D printing works, and this has been working well.

“Electronic kits were sent to students’ home to facilitate their lab work, and we removed physical submission requirements for all assignments apart from first-year workshop training assignments.

“We organised online daily drop-in sessions, and also invited international partner universities and design alumni to give online talks, and we have organised eight seminars at Brunel Design School since October 2020, with four more in the summer.”  

Changes to curriculum and student life 

Although the Global Challenges programme hasn’t changed, Richards says its relevance has been emphasised through the pandemic.

Richards said: “We have a pathway in Planetary Health but students are also exposed to the interconnectedness of the environment and humans.

“The pandemic was a great example to knit through the programme; many of the students' assessments on a contested science task focused on vaccine hesitancy and misinformation reflecting their own interest in engaging with pandemic related topics.

“The curriculum always reflects current circumstances and does flex to reflect current events because our focus is global challenges.

“In terms of student life - yes, the changes have been huge. While the first term allows a certain amount of social-distanced interactivity, students have carried out much of the study in a great deal of isolation and I hope next year we will be able to somehow make up for what was lacking this year.” 

Richards says the programme’s relevance is becoming increasingly apparent to prospective students and their loved ones, and the department will continue to do all they can to support them.

She said: “We have a large international project underway with partner universities in Zambia, the United Nations Development Programme and the Department of Resettlement in Zambia and we very much look forward to welcoming Zambian students to London next year as part of that knowledge exchange project.”

London students in turn will get to work with these students in Zambia as part of work with UNDP and the Department of Resettlement.

Richards said: “Our current graduating students have managed to successfully deliver their project working with industry in spite of the lockdown and the challenges of working with remotely, and next year we will have six external partners working with us on challenges they'd like our students to work on, so we are also really looking forward to this too.”

Dong says design conducted a major revision of design undergraduate programmes in the last six months and proposed important and exciting changes to be implemented in September 2022.

Students, staff, graduates, industry advisors and accreditation body representatives were engaged in the process, thanks to virtual platforms.

She says the Made in Brunel team organised numerous successful events virtually, including the ‘Above the Fold’ brand launch, virtual ‘Sketch off’ competition, ‘Bake off’ competition.

Dong said: “It is unbelievable that the 24-hour Design Challenge took place in the virtual Michael Sterling Building (home of Brunel Design School) identical to the real building! One of the MiB team members was determined to create this extraordinary experience and I am very proud of him. MiB podcast (and MiB TV soon) is the innovation of 2020/21!

“We are working hard to prepare for the physical Made in Brunel Show in the bargehouse, Oxo tower between 17-20th June.”

London universities post-pandemic 

Richards thinks Brunel will look to utilise the extensive estate it has post-pandemic, as the university has everything on a single large campus. 

She said: “More attention on questions of improved sustainability has to be key coming out of pandemic - more attention to reductions in food waste and energy consumption - really working with students to better make the connection between their own choices and the impact this will have on the nature of our future world.” 

Dong believes more resources will be shared by universities, and on-campus spaces will be better utilised in a post-covid world. She said: “Inclusive learning and teaching will be better facilitated and emphasised. Students’ timetable will be arranged to give their best learning experience. They should have more time to explore the culture of the city of London.”

Dong says the Design School will take advantage of blended learning, focusing on making in-person sessions hands-on and engaging, and online sessions accessible and inclusive to the diverse student population.  

She said: “We have been revising design undergraduate programmes and will launch a new integrated MDes (Industrial Design, Design, and Product Design Engineering) in 2022, and a new MSc Digital Design programme will also be launched in 2022.

“The revised undergraduate programmes build on the strong foundation of Brunel Design tradition, and emphasises four core themes: technology, human-centred design, business and strategy, and sustainability.”

This article was originally published in May 2021 .

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Written by

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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